Posted by: captbbrucato | December 3, 2009

Should the TOAR Be Modified?

I’d like to add to what Captain Joel Milton wrote in a recent column in Workboat Magazine. First, I should say that in the past I’ve been strongly opposed to the idea of a limited Towing Officer’s Assessment Record (TOAR), but now I’m convinced that this has to change.

It’s no secret that new wheelhouse candidates coming up now are facing a steeper climb in acquiring their credentials, and the TOAR, a blessing as far as it goes to ensure that the wheelhouse is safe from an incompetent boat-handler, has added an unintended stumbling block. In a prior post I described what it once took to earn your first steering job. Now the TOAR creates a real apprenticeship record showing written proof, with signatures from Coast Guard-certified Designated Examiners, attesting that the man or woman at the helm has earned their stripes. But with this innovation comes a practical problem caused by vessel classifications.

More and more petroleum transportation companies like the one I work for, particularly on the East Coast, are converting or retrofitting their conventional tug fleets to Articulated Tug-Barge (ATB) units. As a result the number of conventional tugs in our operation is shrinking and the training opportunities are becoming even more rare than they were only a short while ago. It’s apparent that, with the new designs of ATB’s and tractor tugs gaining ground, the TOAR is limited in its ability to meet the needs of the industry “as is.”

For example, in the near future my outfit may not have enough conventional tugs left to train prospective wheelhouse personnel to meet the need for qualified mates “in-house.” With the way things are shaping up we’ll be forced to go outside the outfit to hire tug mates with a completed TOAR. Shouldn’t we be able to advance qualified employees who already have a company history and familiarity with the company’s vessels and policy to senior positions rather than bringing in fresh blood that will need orientation and assessment?

The ATB, in its most common configuration, is a limited-application vessel with few similarities to the conventional tugboat (true dual-mode units notwithstanding). The tractor tug is another animal completely, with its own operating parameters that dwarf the abilities of a conventional tug. And although the industry is aware of the capabilities of these vessels, the official Coast Guard TOAR has not been amended to meet the operational needs of these vessels specifically.

In my opinion, I feel there could be an adjustment made to the TOAR to allow for a limited towing endorsement for ATB operations only. Realistically, ATB’s operate like a ship and have similar maneuvering parameters. They utilize assist boats the same as ships. Their officers are tugboat men, but they aren’t towing alongside or astern anymore. The skill-sets they’ve acquired will serve them in an emergency, but when it comes to a full breakout from the notch (for some of the new systems) you’ll find that the general consensus among the men who crew these vessels is that this is done only as a last resort, and I do mean the very last resort.

With the present system mate-candidates on an ATB, trying to advance to the wheelhouse on that same vessel, must return to a conventional tugboat and put in the time. Considering the limited and dwindling availability of training vessels, wouldn’t it make sense to allow them to train and handle the ATB’s under the same direct supervision, then qualify them for an ATB-restricted ticket?

Back when I was working on upgrading my license I was granted a waiver by the local Coast Guard Captain of the Port (COTP), at my employers request, to work as Chief  Mate on a small coastal tanker of just under 1,800 gross tons in order to serve the necessary time on a vessel over 1,600 gross tons. After the time requirement was satisfied under that specific limitation I was granted the unlimited tonnage endorsement and was able to continue upgrading my pilotage with the tonnage limits removed.

Captain Kelly Sweeney of Professional Mariner Magazine recently made the case for increased application of simulators in qualifying candidates for ship operations including navigation, piloting and tanker ops. These days, the latest simulators are being used to prepare and train mariners regarding the abilities of the new tractor tugs without scratching a dollar’s worth of paint. All good things, but I was of the opinion that it was of limited use because the “real-world” intensity just isn’t there. Captain Sweeney offers a different perspective and I can agree that the simulator may be the only way to get the necessary expertise/exposure without creating more roadblocks for many endorsements, not just the TOAR.

Maybe its time we have a conversation to see if this can be accomplished and meet the needs of the industry without sacrificing the quality of the officers we want to see at the helm. Maybe the “waiver” is the way to go. Or perhaps we can utilize the latest simulators in the Bridge Resource Management curriculum for advanced operations like emergency breakaways and towing scenarios, and then arrive at a practical compromise.

Of course with that accommodation the flexibility to work on different types of tugs will be limited, thereby requiring different levels of endorsement. A whole separate issue to which Captain Milton offers an elegant and simple solution: complete a standard TOAR and remove any limits on the endorsement.

Capt. Bill Brucato

NY Tugmaster’s Weblog


  1. Although obvious, I have to ask, are you reconsidering your position opposing the ATB-restricted TOAR:

    James D. Cavo
    USCG Mariner Credentialing Program
    Policy Division (CG-5434)

  2. Yes, in spite of my (shall we say vigorous) objections in the past, I have come to the point where I believe we should at least have a conversation to see if it’s practical and practicable to aim for a limited endorsement. I’m open to discussing it.

    Limited endorsements already exist for the Western Rivers recognizing the different skills necessary to operate there. That endorsement doesn’t apply for coast-wise and ocean towing.
    Would it be too much of a stretch to allow a limited endorsement for specific vessel types, D.P. units, tractor tugs, A.T.B.’s?
    Ship assist, coastal towing, and brown-water work are all very different. Realistically, there aren’t that many companies that employ the full spectrum of vessels necessary to complete a T.O.A.R as there once was. Bouncing from one outfit to another would be impractical.
    As I said, my outfit will have almost all of their large units converted to A.T.B.’s within the next few years (none of them will be dual mode), how will we advance people “in-house” to the wheelhouse of the A.T.B.?
    Let’s talk, what’s your perspective, from a policy standpoint?

  3. We’ve felt there was a need for a while, for the operations you’ve named. Typically the Coast Guard uses TSAC to discuss planned policy like this, we will likey go that way with this as well.

  4. This is/was already a done deal, but no one knew about it. In the current issue of WorkBoat the Mailbag section ( has a letter from Crowley Maritime’s Capt. Vic Goldberg, their Vice-President of Operations, explaining how they went directly to the Coast Guard with this problem and got their problem solved.

    I commend the Coast Guard for doing this, or at least what I know of it so far. However, is it asking too much to expect the CG to take the next logical step and assume that what affects Crowley probably affects everyone else in the biz that operates ATB’s and PUBLICIZE the fact that a workable solution has been arrived at and ANYONE can benefit from it?

    I would have been happy to write about it in WorkBoat and on this blog, spreading the word far and wide on behalf of the CG with very little effort on their part, but I wind up having to hear about it from a third party via the WB Mailbag instead. That is not the kind of foresight and communications savvy that wins over the maritime community, let alone the skeptics and professional critics like me and the rest of the MTVA.

    There will be more on this coming up soon…..

    Joel Milton

  5. Gentlemen:
    I have to disagree with a majority of the opinions I have read regarding the need for experienced towboaters on ATB’s.
    I had the distinct pleasure of being the Operations Manager for the first 5 West Coast ATB’s from their inception and then the Director of Operations for the fleet.
    My goal was to ensure that all the masters, mates and crew were tugboatmen. I was successful and was able to recruit some of the best East and West Coast tugmen to man these initially.
    I was glad I was able to do so because during some of the initial voyages we had some glitches with the Intercon systems in considerable seas where the tugs came out of the notch. as you know these tugs were outfitted with emergency hawsers and H-Bitts with capstans.
    Thank God for the Tugboatmen that were the captains of these units that had tugboatmen’s skills and were able to deploy the hawser and either tow them to complete the trip safely or keep them under control regardless if towing them bow first or holding on to them stern first long enough to pass off to a wire boat. If these were inexperienced people or even Ship Master’s not used to close quarters boathandling in moderate sea conditions employed on these units the outcomes may not have been so good.

    So I respectfully disagree on the licensing issue and personally believe that anyone operating these units should be able to handle them out of the notch on the hip or on the towline when needed. It is our responsibility as the old guard of the towing industry to make sure our art, skills and trade are not something that slowly fades away due to technological advances.
    These skills are just one of many required to deliver the cargoes safely to their destinations.
    The focus on manning a majority of ATB units has slowly gone away from tugmen to other licensed personnel so we are faced with a serious dilemma.
    I say keep and enforce the TOAR requirements, and work towards making these folks well versed modern towboatment and skilled shiphandlers and navigators not just vessel operators going from point A to point B more concerned with doing paperwork that panic within 2 miles of another vessel or land and with crews that only know how to tie the vessel up and pump cargoes .
    If you work on a vessel that can tow or has to tow under any circumstances and is classed as a towing vessel you must have the skills and knowledge to do it.!

  6. Capt Loch, I agree with much of what you say regarding ship handling and navigating, I appreciate your position. I too have strong feelings about “dumbing down” the standard, but the question remains; Where are these /fully qualified tugboat people/ going to come from? If there are fewer platforms to train on, the end result will simply become a game of recycling the present pool of talent until the “old guard” retires or musters out after they fall victim to the new Medical Review process in West Virginia. Do you or did you have a company training program to advance your people after the initial recruiting process? Putting together fully qualified tugboat crews to start was a natural and intelligent decision, but how did/do you deal with attrition? Once the conventional tugboat becomes rarer than “hens teeth” we’ll be faced with an impossible task. I don’t know about the West Coast, but here in the East we’re seeing far fewer young people shouldering the burden of apprenticeship to it’s conclusion. The old guard is more than willing to train them but the hill just keeps getting steeper. These candidates end up abandoning the effort, and with that goes our hopes that we’ll be able to replace /ourselves/ with those we leave behind after we retire.

    The towing evolution for an ATB would be impossible to practice safely ( as a regular training issue), and a conventional hawser boat is going to become extinct in a few years. Setting the emergency hawser has a great deal of importance for a backup plan but it’s not going to be pretty no matter who does it. I’m not trying to address all ATB’s, dual mode units would logically require a fully qualified/unrestricted towing master at the helm. I posed the question based on an observation. I invite any and all with an idea that /addresses/ the problem, I’ve already stipulated that the idea isn’t fully fleshed out. Regards, Captain Bill Brucato ATB Nicole Leigh Reinauer New York, NY

  7. Bill:
    You have a valid point. I gave it a noble effort sending some of the young mates through training periods on the wire boats but on a large scale it would be tough to do. At the time the training program was mainly carried out by bringing people in at lower level ratings regardless of position and advancing them through the ranks. Again good only to a point since you can only carry and find platforms for the limited few. Dealing with attrition and retirements is another issue which was easy to deal with at the time but increased in difficulty as time passes.
    Your point about young people not shouldering apprenticeship is something that is prevalent everywhere. It nothing like the days where we got to work with the old timers that taught us what we know today. When I think of the days learning from the old timers at Moran and then others on the West Coast I wonder how many of todays generation would have stuck it out.

    There has to be a happy medium that can be worked out to keep the ATB’s in the hand of skilled Mariners as time progresses.

    Keeping fully qualified/unrestricted towing master’s at the helm of dual mode ATB’s is definately a standard to maintain.

    Regardless there is no easy answer and I think that the entities that end up making the final decisions need to seek advice in a public forum from those in the industry that have done and do the work before making decisions on the final licensing scenarios.

    Enjoyed the discussion,


  8. I’ve never set foot on an A.T.B. but it is my view that the root cause of these problems is that owners want the profits and benefits of a ship but the costs and regulatory burden associated with an uninspeced vessel hooked to an unmanned barge. If the crews must go to sea on a ship they may, in an emergency at sea, become a tug and tow, they should receive the appropriate level of training.

    I don’t have much sympathy with owners/operators faced with these training dilemmas, they saved a bundle over the years sending crews to sea with the burdens and dangers of operating a tug and tow in the open sea without paying for the comforts and safety provided by a ship.

  9. […] gotten started and at least one old-school type who had previously disagreed with me has since come around to the idea that this is an area that needs to be addressed. The debate needs to continue, and […]

  10. […] gotten started and at least one old-school type who had previously disagreed with me has since come around to the idea that this is an area that needs to be […]

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